Making Clean Paint Lines

When constructing a model railroad the stage is reached where one or more control panels is needed. These generally consist of straight and curved lines depicting the track plan. Often they also include toggle switches or push buttons to operate electrically-powered turnouts, electric uncouplers or some sort of light to show the position of a train on hidden track or whether a particular piece of track is powered.

I have tried several techniques when making control panels. Each technique has its own pros and cons.

The simplest technique involves first painting a piece of masonite hardboard one colour and letting the paint completely cure. Next apply some sort of tape depicting the track plan. Next paint a contrasting colour over the entire piece using either a roller, a brush, a rattle can or an airbrush. Once this paint has dried the tape is gently removed - to reveal a nice crisp image of the track plan. NOT SO FAST. . . . . . Invariably, no matter the type of tape used, how carefully its edges were pressed down to ensure that the second coat of paint would not bleed under the tape or the method of applying the second coat it will always bleed, making a mess.

Sometime in the last year or so I read an article in Model Railroader Magazine which offered a very simple solution to this problem. After the tape has been applied, paint over the entire piece using the SAME colour that was used for the first coast (i.e., it is the SAME colour as the lines will be). Of course some of this paint bleeds under the edges of the tape but that doesn't matter - because it is the same colour. This second coat has the effect of sealing any gaps that might remain under the edges of the tape. Once this second coat of paint is dry, apply the contrasting paint. Once the contrasting paint is dry to the touch but not completely set the tape is removed, leaving nice crisp edges. Thank you Model Railroader Magazine!

Instead of one or two large control panels, my current layout includes several very small control panels that control the track within a few feet of the panel - I like to move about the layout with the trains rather than having to sit in one place. Following are three of these small panels before any paint is applied. You can see the pencil lines where the tape will be applied as well as holes drilled to accommodate toggle switches, push buttons and LED lights.

After applying grey paint with a roller

After applying tape to the grey painted surface

My preferred tape for this purpose. It is easily curved to make smooth corners and has clean edges (is a plastic tape).

After a coat of grey paint has been applied with a roller over the entire surface

After black paint has been applied with a roller and allowed to dry the tape is gently removed. I find that this produces better results if the black paint has not fully cured - dry to the touch but still a bit "soft". I clearly could have done a better job of sanding the surface of the Masonite hardboard - but in reality these imperfections do not show because the room has indirect lighting, unlike when I took this picture on the floor.

The results

The final result installed on the layout. The green lights are push buttons with a built-in green LED. When I press a button the turnout moves position and the green LED lights to show the direction of travel for a train. The toggle switches operate Rapido electric uncouplers. The blue light shows that this uncoupler is turned on to uncouple a car. Watch for future blog posts on the LEDs and the uncouplers.

You like Sculptamold?

For many people in the model railroading hobby, Sculptamold is one of the go-to products for creating a scenery base. This water-based paper mache like product is very useful. However, our local hobby shop often doesn't carry it and ordering on line results in high shipping costs because the product is relatively bulky and heavy. The cost can really add up, especially if you need more than a small bag.

I now make my own version which for me works exactly the same as Sculptamold. I can make large quantities for very little cost and I can even vary the amount of time until the material starts to setup, depending on the specifications of one of the two ingredients.

I purchased a basic food processor on sale. I am sure I could have found one for much less money had I searched garage sales but I couldn't be bothered.

I put one part cellulose fiber insulation and one part drywall compound in the food processor and mix for a couple of minutes to make sure the cellulose is well broken up and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. I purchased a 10 kg (22 lb) bale of cellulose fiber from Lowes for about $13. This is a large bale which will last me for many years. Lowes also sells 8 kg (18 lb) bags of a product called CertainTeed LiteSand Plus 20 (or 30 or 45) for about $25 a bag. The number refers to the number of minutes that elapse before the product begins to harden. I like using the LiteSand 45 because it gives me 45 minutes to work the product before it starts to set.

This mixture can be applied in exactly the same way as Sculptamold and, when dry, it can be painted or otherwise used in exactly the same way. The only difference is that the colour is slightly grey whereas Sculptamold is pure white. It takes roughly the same length of time to dry and, when dry, is as hard as Sculptamold.

Here is a picture of my mixture after being applied to my model railroad and after fully drying.

Here is a picture of the "production line" with the raw materials. A handful of the cellulose insulation is the grey-coloured fist-sized pile beside the white scoop. The food processor is shown with the raw materials loaded in the hopper ready to be mixed. I store the mixture in the plastic container which has an air-tight lid to keep moisture out.

I should add a word of caution. This is one of those situations where you should not ask to borrow the food processor from your kitchen. Also don't sneak it out and use it without asking, thinking that you can clean it thoroughly. You don't want to be explaining to your spouse or mother-in-law as to how on earth their innards got plugged up with drywall compound. As Lucille Ball used to say to her I Love Lucy husband, Ricky Ricardo, "Ricky you've got some 'splainin' to do!".

On the other hand, it might be a good test for the two-week Metamucil Challenge that I keep hearing about in a quite revolting TV commercial which seems to play incessantly these days. No, my waste is NOT weighing me down as they like to insinuate. I need no third-party assistance with excreta nor do I need some sanctimonious woman who whistles every time she says the letter "S" telling me otherwise!

Handy Holders

I enjoy having a coffee, soft drink or other beverage within easy reach when I am in my workshop or train room. Several years ago I noticed that one of my favorite vendors, Micro-Mark, was selling a retractable cup holder which can be mounted on a vertical surface such as the fascia of a model railroad or on the side of a workbench. It looks like this (the photo on the left shows the adjustable jaws in their narrowest setting and on the right much wider apart):


It works great for many types of drink holders including mugs, bottles, cans or even travel mugs:

When you are not using it to hold a drink it can be folded up for a neat appearance:

Unfortunately I can no longer find this on Micro-Mark's website but a Google search reveals that there a many other variations on this design available for purchase from a variety of vendors.

Another very useful holder, also from Micro-Mark, is a holder for DCC controllers:

I have a TV in both my workshop and my train room and frequently misplace the remote control. It struck me recently that a holder for this would be useful too. I quickly designed a holder to fit my remote control and printed a couple on my 3D printer. I am very pleased with how this turned out:

Wascana Canyon Railway v3 – Part 4

Efficient Passing Siding Design

In an earlier blog post I mentioned that one of the flaws in my design of the trackwork for the WCR v1 was a shortage of passing sidings. In creating the track plan for WCR v3 I was determined to rectify this. However, since the size of my room is not large compared with many that house model railroads, I needed an efficient design for passing sidings. While most of my trains will not be long, up to 12 cars, that is still approximately 6 feet of train.

The traditional passing siding looks like this:

The red train hides in the passing siding while the blue train continues along the main line. Say the space available allows for a maximum train length of 4 feet. It would be impossible for a 6-foot-long train to pass without having to break the train and park a portion of it in a spur track or another passing siding some distance away.

Here is a more efficient alternative:

Two passing sidings have been staggered, each of which can accommodate a train of up to 4 feet in length. By routing the turnouts as shown it is possible for a train of up to 10 feet to pass because the middle turnout adds additional space for the train to occupy.

Each of the passing tracks creates easy opportunities to add spurs on the curves, as follows:

Below is an excerpt from my upper level track plan showing one of these enhanced passing sidings (the blog post for WCR v3 – Part 1 shows the complete upper level track plan). The only difference compared to the illustrations above is that this will be built on a curve.

Wascana Canyon Railway v3 – Part 3


  1. As stated earlier, even after being reasonably happy with my mock-up backdrop to test my artistry I was concerned that I would never be completely satisfied with my own painting skills. I have seen too many beautiful model railroads with crude “puff ball white” clouds unnaturally hanging bizarrely in a too-blue sky.

  2. After doing a lot of on-line research of suppliers of model railroad backdrops I settled on what turned out to be a fantastic product. I ordered my backdrops from Trainjunkies. This Utah, US company has a nice variety of scenes and skies to choose from. What attracted me was the ability to choose one or more image and have then expertly blended to create a seamless backdrop of up to 100 feet in length.

  3. For my top level I chose the Sierra Mountain Divide which is passable for the background mountains and lakes of the Columbia Valley. Since I wanted 35 feet of continuous image, they simply stitched together the inverse of the image to the original image. Unless it is pointed out to a guest not one person has ever noticed the fact that I have the same scene appearing almost three times across this backdrop. The effect is very good.

  4. For my middle level I chose the grassy hill image but in N-scale as I wanted the hills to be less dominant in the background. Since I had only about one foot of backdrop height to deal with, whichever one I chose would need to be trimmed to fit anyway.

  5. For the lower yard level I chose the Union Pacific Yards image. The only challenge I had with this image was that a Union Pacific yard naturally is filled with UP yellow locomotives but most of my rolling stock is CP which is decidedly not yellow. However, since I ordered the backdrop printed on HP matte photo paper, I decided I could carefully use artist pencils to colour over several of the locomotives. It was not necessary for me to do this to all of the locomotives because, as luck would have it, it is not uncommon to see UP locomotives operating beside CP locomotives I assume because of some sort of reciprocal business arrangement between the two railroads. This backdrop was also ordered in N-scale because I wanted the image to be very much in the background and to not dominate the scenery and to create “forced perspective”. I am tremendously pleased with the result. Not one single person has questioned the colours of the locomotives in the backdrop yard, either the UP colours or the red colours.

  6. The one challenge with installing such long continuous backdrops is that it would be almost impossible to do so by yourself. The use of repositionable spray adhesive is recommended by the backdrop supplier and I agree that this is the best way to go. I enlisted the help of two friends from our model railroad club, Doug and Ron. Ron, who is much taller than both Doug and me held the rolled-up backdrop, I applied the spray adhesive to the back of the backdrop and Doug gently unrolled the backdrop and positioned it on the prepared backdrop surface. This process had to be smooth but quick. Then, using clean rubber gloves I slid the background around slightly so it was positioned to my satisfaction – I did the latter step because in the even of an overly aggressive move it would be possible to wrinkle or tear the stiff paper which the backdrop is made from. I didn’t want to put either Doug or Ron in the position of possibly ruining the job. All went well and I am delighted with the result.

  7. As you can see from the above picture there remained in some places a noticeable seam between the top of the backdrop. Since I had colour matched the darkest blue of the pre-painted surface to the backdrop sky colour itself this was only the case in a few places. Using this dark blue colour mixed with varying amounts of white acrylic paint I was able to do a decent enough job of airbrushing selected places along the top of the backdrop to blend with the image itself. I am very satisfied with the result - and many times more satisfied than I would ever have been with a hand-painted backdrop.